U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Against “Tolerance”: History, Politics, and the Specter of Charles A. Ellwood

Today’s guest post is by Carl R. Weinberg, an adjunct associate professor of history at Indiana University. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion: Southwestern Illinois Coal Miners and World War I and is currently writing a book entitled Red Dynamite: Creationism, Anticommunism, and Culture Wars in Modern America (under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press).

On Sunday March 29, three days after Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed into law the by-now widely hated and ridiculed Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (IRFRA), the governor accused his critics of “intolerance.” In a televised interview with George Stephanapolous, Pence said that “there’s a lot of talk about tolerance in this country today having to do with people on the left.” But what about the “avalanche of intolerance” poured out by those very same people on the state of Indiana as a result of the passage of IRFRA? Pence asked. As a pair of columnists wrote in response to Pence, what the governor calls “intolerance” is really just “criticism” of the new law, which was clearly passed to give legal cover for discrimination against gays and lesbians. [1] Indeed, the furor over IRFRA is yet another indication that there has been a sea-change in attitudes toward support for gay rights, which is a great thing. I’m happy to see Pence and his supporters scrambling.

And yet, the war of words unleashed by critics of IRFRA this past week leaves untouched the assumption that we should be against “intolerance” and for “tolerance.” I have never been a fan of “tolerance.” It is popular these days as a buzzword for those interested in fighting against racism, sexism, homophobia, and Jew-hatred, among others. But as a positive injunction to treat our fellow human beings as we would like to be treated—as in “teach tolerance”—it always seemed inadequate, as if we were being asked to “put up with” other, inferior people. The same goes for the “toleration” of alternative viewpoints, which somehow conjures up for me someone who is always one step away from turning off the toleration switch.

But the problem with “tolerance” goes deeper than this. As I will attempt to demonstrate in the rest of this post, I contend that “tolerance” comes out of a specifically liberal political project that I consider, viewing it from my own Marxist standpoint, as an obstacle to building a revolutionary movement to overcome the evils that “tolerance” aims to address. That is, as long as we live in a dog-eat-dog capitalist society in which a tiny minority of billionaires call the shots—even liberal billionaires are willing to boycott Indiana—we will have no chance of uprooting a range of oppressive relationships that feed on the hierarchy and competition between working people that capitalism inevitably engenders. In this regard, I would contend that Pence and other conservatives are correct to sense that the historical roots of “tolerance” are not politically neutral. Exhibit A for this contention is a document I came across in doing research for my current book manuscript. It is a 1924 speech called “Intolerance” given by Charles A. Ellwood, the then-president of the American Sociological Society. [2] In a curious way, Ellwood’s speech gave me a whole new reason to dislike “tolerance,” but with a political logic that both conservatives and liberals in Indiana might find objectionable. In the rest of this piece, I analyze the speech and elaborate on my point. I’m very much interested to hear what others think.

Charles A. Ellwood was the intellectual heir of Lester Frank Ward, the progressive, Social Gospel-influenced, botanist, geologist, and reform evolutionary sociologist often considered the “father” of modern American sociology.  At the time Ellwood delivered his speech, he was teaching at the University of Missouri. He had weathered conservative attacks on both his evolutionary views and his racial liberalism—he spoke out against the lynching of an African American man that occurred on the Missouri campus. In his speech, Ellwood decried the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan, the widespread popular opposition to teaching evolution, religious “bigotry” and Fundamentalism, and the opposition of big business to progressive education, among others. [3]

To probe the origins of these problems, as well as their solution, Ellwood used a Spencerian, social-organicist analogy, then the rage in his field. Society was a body whose health depended on a “dynamic” process of “evolutionary readaptation” with its environment, which continually produced a new, ideally fit “equilibrium.” This process, in turn, began with individual members of society expressing dissatisfaction with the current “static” state of affairs. Some of these “variations” in thought were beneficial—but only if they were freely allowed to spread. The key, then, to social and political health, was the free exchange of ideas or “intercommunication.” The repression of new ideas—from the denial of the vote to African Americans to the movement to ban evolution from the schools—interfered with the process of social selection of favorable thought variations. It consequently prevented “sympathetic understanding of individuals and classes.” This, in turn, led to “group disruption,” open conflict, war, and worse. To bring home his point, Ellwood, without ironic intent, quoted former President (and author of the wartime Sedition Act) Woodrow Wilson: “Repression is the seed of revolution.”

Ellwood then went on to illustrate with the case of Soviet Russia. Decades of severe repression by an intolerant Tsarist minority, prior to 1917, he claimed, explained the “destructive and terrible” character of the Bolshevik revolution. (He did not elaborate on the details.) There were also intolerant majorities—such as the white Southern population in the antebellum period, whose intolerance led to repression and a “revolutionary” Civil War. In both cases, “social disaster” replaced “normal social development.” The “remedy” to the problem of “intolerance,” concluded Ellwood, was “the conversion of our people to the scientific attitude.” The true spirit of science, he said, was “its open-mindedness, and so its tolerance.” Infused with this spirit, the American people would let go of their “selfish personal and class interests” and embrace beneficial new ideas. We would have, in the words of businessman Edward Filene, also approvingly quoted by Ellwood, “sane social advance” rather than “revolutionary socialism.”

Charles Ellwood is not much remembered in the early twenty-first century, but I suspect that his ghost is alive and well. How many times have you heard young people express the idea that racism and other forms of oppression result from lack of “communication”? Or as Rodney King more famously phrased it, “Can’t we all just get along?” Indeed, Ellwood’s underlying premise is that there are no fundamental conflicts structurally built into American society. There are no truly opposed class interests. If we adopt an open-minded, neutral, objective “scientific” attitude, the apparent conflicts will be resolved. Thus, in the case of the American Civil War, if the slaveholders and enslaved people had been able to see beyond their “selfish personal and class interests,” war would have been avoided. To make this idea more plausible, Ellwood concocts a mythical commitment by the country’s founding fathers to “religious, political, and racial toleration.” Whatever “toleration” means in this context, it apparently encompassed explicit widespread state bans on Catholics holding elected office; the denial of the vote to women, free African Americans, and many working-class men of all colors; and the protection of the institution of slavery.

Speaking of the founders, Ellwood’s ghost has also intervened in the current attacks on “revisionism” in the teaching of U.S. history. The Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association have ably defended the “revision” of history, on specific points, in textbooks and classrooms. Using the telling example of a surgeon who neglects to read the “revisionist” medical literature, they have worked hard to educate the American public on history as a living, breathing, evolving field. But rather than openly acknowledge the inherently political nature of the act of writing history, they have tended to focus on neutral-sounding disciplinary principles. If enough people will just reject “political partisanship” and adopt the open-minded, “tolerant” mental habits of “historical thinking”—a variation on Ellwood’s “scientific attitude”—then the attacks will stop. [4] To use a phrase handily employed by Andrew Hartman in his new book on the culture wars, we once again seem to be hiding behind the “cloak of professionalism.”

The specter of Ellwoodism is especially critical in regard to the evolution/creationism controversy, because it appears to be, at its heart, an academic dispute. Surely, spreading a scientific mindset, á la Bill “The Science Guy,” would help the cause. And yet, as Michael Lienesch has shown, the most bitter, sustained, and politically powerful attacks on evolution have been aimed not at biology, but at social scientists and evolution’s alleged implications for “social behavior.” In this view, it is responsible for abortion, homosexuality, Nazism (and in an early era, communism, and all of its “immoral” connotations.) As Lienesch shows, sociologists as a whole embraced “scientific” professional neutrality in response to these kinds of political attacks. [5] Although I think he neglects the specifically anticommunist dimension, I fully agree that the debate over evolution is, and has always been, about politics.

Not surprisingly, today’s antievolutionists are also anti-“tolerance.” Consider Freedom Guard, a conservative legal outfit that is currently representing young-earth-creationist “ministry” Answers in Genesis (AiG) in its lawsuit against the state of Kentucky, which recently denied AiG the right to participate in a tax-incentive program for its planned Ark Encounter theme park, citing employment discrimination. On its website, Freedom Guard bemoans the increasing attacks on “religion and morality,” as “‘tolerance’ gradually replaces Truth as the ultimate value in America’s postmodern society.” [6]

But responding to this statement by reflexively affirming “tolerance” would be a mistake. In this regard, talking about the fight against antigay discrimination in Indiana and elsewhere in terms of “tolerance” falsely suggests that the issue can easily be solved within our current system by “sane social advance.” In the hands of Charles Ellwood and his heirs, “tolerance” represents the well-meaning but ultimately illusory liberal hope of resisting “by intercommunication” the reactionary violence embedded in capitalist democracy (also known as the dictatorship of capital). Tolerance implies that we can achieve lasting progressive social change, all without serious social conflict, and especially without social or socialist revolution. Of that kind of “tolerance,” I remain firmly intolerant.


[1] Jason Linkins and Ryan Grimm, “Mike Pence Dodges Criticism by Calling Critics ‘Intolerant.’ That Dog Won’t Hunt.”

[2] On Ellwood, see Stephen Turner, “A Life in the First Half-Century of Sociology: Charles Ellwood and the Division of Sociology,” in Craig Calhoun, ed., Sociology in America: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 115-54; See also, http://www.asanet.org/about/presidents/Charles_Ellwood.cfm

[3] Charles Ellwood, “Intolerance,” Papers and Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Society 19 (1925): 1–14. It is also available online (with a few possibly OCR-related typos, including a reference to the Klan as having “trillions” of members).

[4] See, for instance, James R. Grossman, “The New History Wars,” New York Times, September 1, 2014,

[5] Michael Lienesch, “Abandoning olutolution: The Forgotten History of Antievolution Activism and the Transformation of American Social Science,” Isis 103 (December 2012): 687–709.

[6] Freedom Guard, “Our History and Purpose” 

19 Thoughts on this Post

    • I know what you mean.

      A few years ago the university in my town sponsored a March Against Hate. Looking at the photos of some of the marchers in the paper the next day, I had an epiphany.

      In their contorted faces, one could easily see just how much they hated hate. In fact, I have seldom seen such deep-felt hatred expressed in a face as these marchers displayed. It was almost more than a human face could hold and an observer could stand to gaze upon.

      It was clear to me that they knew and were intimate with hatred and so could whip up as good and solid a hatred as anyone provided it was directed at something they found worthy or deserving of their hate. But that was okay because their cause was righteous and their hate was surely directed at something that needed hating – like hatred.

      How could it be otherwise? After all they hated hate. In fact, they were going to hate hatred to death. They would show it. They were going to create a climate of such intolerable hatred that hate won’t want to come around here anymore. Maybe it will be more comfortable at a county north of here where they don’t know how to hate like we do. We can only hope.


      But what is one to do when hatred has been exiled and he or she is forced to look inward and see their own soul’s deep well of hatred. Will they stand guiltlessly proud or will they start hating themselves or their colleagues for having caused so much hate. Will it all end in one great gun battle?

      Hell, I don’t know.

      All I know is that the irony of the whole thing just struck me kind of funny and I vowed to never let hatred run my life one way or another because I didn’t really want to hate myself or anyone else. It’s much better – and puts a better face on you than hatred – to treat others with kindness and if anyone does you dirt forgive that person right away.

      I don’t think Get Together would sound good sung between clenched teeth.

      (I do understand there are things we cannot tolerate; I’m not a naïf. I just think you must pick your strategy wisely in those instances.)

      As I said to my good friend Gov. Mike Pence the other day: “Good intentions are not enough!” He winked and was off to clarify a few things.

  1. I’m skeptical of the desire of many people to, per Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together,” but I’m skeptical of the power of revolution to often do more than effect surface-level change, either.

  2. Oh, if revolutions do start, they usually need more follow-through than we’ve ever seen in America. My bon mot about Reconstruction is that it would have worked fine if we had had 200,000 troops in the South for a generation rather than 20,000 for a decade.

    Of course, that itself arguably illustrates part of the American collective psyche’s collective short-sightedness.

  3. Carl, it seems like there are maybe a couple of different meanings of “tolerance” that this post is bringing together — “tolerance” as a synonym for a scientific or pragmatic empiricism seems slightly different from “tolerance” as a ground rule for co-existence in a pluralistic society. They are related, surely, and that relation probably runs along an axis of “tolerance” as a sort of ground rule for debate in a deliberative democracy, where tolerance means a commitment to argue things out rather than fighting them out. I’m grateful for such a commitment, and I share it. So, though this will come as a surprise to absolutely no one who has read anything I’ve ever written, I am clearly not a revolutionary.

    And — or, maybe in the reading of some, “so” — I’m not persuaded by the critique of historical professionalism in your fourth paragraph from the end. And one of the reasons I’m not persuaded is that you’ve not offered evidence to support your allegation that the interventions of the OAH and the AHA on behalf of sound historical pedagogy in high schools have invoked or been premised upon notions of “tolerance.” The example you cited in your footnote, the piece by Grossman, talks about empathy as “an essential aspect of historical thinking.” Empathy may very well be related to tolerance — it may be an ethical ground for it — but they’re not the same.

    You’ve said that professionalism is something historians are hiding behind — what exactly we’re hiding from is not clear here. I guess maybe “the inherently political nature of the act of writing history”? In any case, the argument you’ve offered to support this allegation of professional cowardice — and my Lord but this blog sure ain’t afraid to run posts that are blisteringly critical of our field, our methods, our work! — As I was saying, this argument you’ve offered isn’t a good historical argument. Or am I supposedly hiding behind a cloak of professionalism to even point that out?

  4. L. D.—Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Given our different starting points, I suspect that, to a large extent, we will have to agree to disagree. I don’t think, for instance, we live in a “pluralistic society.”

    I do agree, however, that I didn’t give an example to back up my claim about Grossman and the “cloak.” Here’s an example from his piece:

    “There was a time, for example, when historians didn’t worry much about the slave trade and the emergence of an economy based on forced labor. Historians likened the plantation to a “school,” and emancipated people as children let out of class too soon. Only slightly more than a half-century ago, historians began to “revise” that narrative, examining sources previously ignored or unseen, informed by new ideas about race and human agency.”

    So why is it that in the mid-twentieth century, historians began to change the way they wrote about this subject? Why is it that they now attended to previously neglected documents and adopted new ideas about race and human agency? As Grossman is well aware, it was the impact of the mass, largely working-class Black freedom movement. But acknowledging this would suggest that the (re)writing of history is bound up with politics.

    On the one hand, Grossman gestures toward a materialist understanding of the writing of history, but then he suggests that a constructive debate about the past needs to shun “political partisanship,” as if it poisons the waters of inquiry. In this sense, he is hiding behind the notion that history writing happens as the result of a non-partisan, non-political , open-minded, “tolerant” (in the Ellwoodian sense) exchange of information.

    Whether or not you agree, I hope this helps clarify what I was saying.


  5. Hm, you don’t have to be invested in revolutionary sentiments to question the liberal discourse of tolerance from a leftist perspective. The general issue with the liberal take on tolerance, as can be clearly seen in the case of race relations in the US, is how it can nevertheless be blind towards the other and erase her voice and singularity. This brings up the quandary of ethics versus politics and how discourses that are based on the former often end up in an apolitical mush. Can all viewpoints and practices be tolerated? Of course not, as the case for “religious toleration” trumpeted by ant-LGBT right wing conservatives shows us. The problem with an ethics exclusively based on tolerance is that it is founded on the fiction of the individual.

  6. If I may jump in here to add to Carl’s great critique, there is another serious problem with the rhetoric of tolerance. Whatever various ideas it may encompass, what it doesn’t do is get us to be honest about the struggle over power & values that is always going on. This speaks partly to the “cloak” Carl brought up, but consider also that conservatives actually have (something) of a point when they complain about liberal intolerance. To be sure, they are spouting nonsense when they construct themselves as victims on any material, or legal level — but they are correct that cries for tolerance are not usually raised in defense of what liberals & leftists consider homophobia, racism, and (my own preferred description) sociopathic classism. That is because it doesn’t make sense to be tolerant of racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism. At least, from the perspective of a leftist, I don’t think it makes sense, and I’m not down with that program. I’m not going to throw someone in jail for being racist, but I’m also not going to comply with them, say, being my teacher or holding a position of power over anyone other than fellow racists. Just to think of one concrete example, the NBA felt the same; they were very intolerant of Donald Sterlings’ racism. So that is a form of intolerance I entirely embrace — but we do need to recognize it as intolerance, and think about how therefore, the rhetoric of tolerance doesn’t mean much other than “that which most people today do not considerably obviously horrendously wrong.”

    And this is not peculiar to me. We all do this. We all have an idea in our heads about what people should be shamed for and what, on the other hand, can fall under “respectful disagreement.” The problem with the rhetoric of tolerance is that it allows people to fight a battle based in — possibly justified — intolerance while all the while denying that such a struggle is going on. This leaves liberal discourse open to easy attack, and moreover, means we’re all doing politics while being fundamentally dishonest — with others but I would suggest even more substantially, with ourselves — about exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it. It’s a bizarro world of political discourse, sometimes, because of this.

  7. Thanks for the reply, Carl. I’m not sure what you mean by “our different starting points.” I assume we’re both starting with your text.

    I am glad you elaborated on what you meant — your comment here offers something of an argument, rather than a dismissive assertion. I’m not sure that Grossman is “hiding” behind anything, though — fairly early in his piece (3rd paragraph) he connects historical revisionism with the recognition that “we the people” isn’t a synonym for “white people,” and in the next paragraph he identifies the main opposition to AP history as an opposition to this decentering of whiteness. I just don’t think Grossman’s op ed in the New York Times is as damning an example of purported cowardice as you suggest.

    For an example of an argument for some “inner logic” of historiographic change that is really dismissive of the role of political movements in driving historical inquiry, there’s Bernard Bailyn’s strange 2005 book, Atlantic History: Concepts and Contours. I wrote about Bailyn’s ahistorical apoliticism here: The Shape of the Sea.

    Bottom line, I don’t think the Grossman essay supports your argument. And there’s this sweeping statement about the profession: “we once again seem to be hiding…” Do you really mean to include yourself in that cowardly “we”? Who is your target here? All historians? Intellectual historians? Liberals? Is “historical thinking” to be eschewed, or only a particular variant of it? And on what grounds? And how exactly will you make that argument historically? You’ve done a bit of arguing here in the comments. But the post conflated and collapsed different meanings of “tolerance” and simply asserted that a particular idea(l) of tolerance current in 1925 is (still? again?) haunting professional discourse in 2015. That’s an interesting claim, but you haven’t made a case for it.

    I see that other comments have gone up while I am writing this one. (I usually try to check before posting, but not always.)

    Kahlil is correct, you don’t have to be a revolutionary to question the liberal discourse of tolerance. You also don’t have to be a historian to do that. But if you are going to do that as a historian — if you’re going to summon history to make or bolster a case for what’s wrong with “tolerance” talk today — then you can’t do without that quaint little retrograde thing called “historical thinking.” (Side note: I am intrigued by your invocations of “ghosts” and “specters” — what is geist doing in the middle of your argument?!)

    In terms of Robin Marie’s comment, I think the “we” (as in, what we are doing) may be misplaced, but I think that has to do with Carl’s transposition/misidentification of Grossman’s claim regarding what is essential to historical thinking. Tolerance may be value-free, but historical thinking is not, because historical thinking is impossible without empathy. So this essay, in taking on people who argue that history should be value-free, is (ugh, can’t believe I’m using this metaphor, but the day has worn me down) taking on a straw man.

    • “You’ve said that professionalism is something historians are hiding behind — what exactly we’re hiding from is not clear here. I guess maybe “the inherently political nature of the act of writing history”?”

      I’m confused by your line of argument in these past two comments. What are we hiding behind? Well, so as to not put words in Carl’s mouth, I’ll elaborate on how I would answer that question.

      Carl brings up the current liberal defense of an education steeped in pluralism and highlights things it has in common with the idea of tolerance — you counter that it is more about empathy, and therefore cannot be apolitical. True enough, but I think Carl’s point is whatever value they evoke — tolerance or empathy — what they are *not* doing is describing their decisions and teaching decisions *as overtly political.* They are, indeed, still hiding behind some concepts — tolerance, empathy, whatever — which those who employ them usually actually try rather hard to scrub clean of clear, overt, committed politics. Many individual members of the AHA know as well as anyone that this country was built on racism, sexism and classism, but that’s not what they write into their defenses of pluralistic education about why we need to teach the history of racism, sexism, and classism — they don’t openly state that they are working towards creating new, explicitly political, values for their students, even if they are. (Or they usually don’t say so openly; only the most brazen of leftists typically do this.) They say they are pro-tolerance, or pro-empathy, or what have you. Ok, that’s all well and good; but the question remains, empathy and tolerance for who?, and why?, what’s the point? (Often”critical thinking & empathy are just endless, timeless goods that don’t require a political agenda to justify” is a common response to such questions, which I find completely unconvincing & also basically untrue. Or, you might get something about training students to be “citizens,” also equally fuzzy & based on unpacked assumptions.) And are we for equal empathy and tolerance for all? Or is there a point where we are disproportionate or discriminate? Why? Appeals to empathy OR tolerance are not enough to answer the question of why we assign Fredrick Douglass more than any number of slavery apologists. Even! — even if they generate what most liberal historians would consider “good history.” Because, then, the question ultimately is — why is good history important? Because empathy/tolerance! And around in circles we go.

      Anyway, the point isn’t that the way liberal historians do and teach their history is actually apolitical — the point is that it is so often defended and discussed in terms removed by one, or two, or sometimes even three degrees from their political implications. Carl offers a document that shows how this is not new — and how liberal politics involve a weird belief in the power of “rational discussion,” which is a critique I entirely concur with — and then points to how, what do you know, a similar discourse is still alive and well. Yeah, it’s not exactly the same. But does that really mean he’s making a huge stretch suggesting they are historically related?, or somewhere on the same tree of liberal thought in the last 100 years? That was how I read him, and it seems like a pretty good case to me.

      Finally, I get that you disagree and that is totally legit — you may think his two examples do not link up at all, or barely, or whatever, but that doesn’t make his essay an attack on “historical thinking.” It certainly did not read to me like that, but of course I found his discussion persuasive. So, as you said, it’s fine to disagree — that’s what historians do. But I’m not sure why that disagreement needs to rise to the level of implying that Carl is departing from, or attacking, “historical thinking” — you say he hasn’t made a case for the connection he is drawing, but he has; you just didn’t find it convincing. Just because you find a link rather wimpy and conflating — whereas I find it rather clear and elucidating — doesn’t mean it’s fair to conclude that he must not be making a historical argument at all, then.

  8. Robin Marie,

    In my second comment, which was a response to Carl’s first comment, I said that thanks to his explanation, 1) I now saw part of the argument he had intended to make, where that was not evident to me in the original piece. However, I said, 2) I didn’t think the evidence he had chosen to take a stand on (the Grossman essay) provided adequate support for that argument. Instead, 3) I pointed to an example that could be used to make a stronger case for the notion that at least some historians act/write as if “history writing happens as the result of a non-partisan, non-political , open-minded, ‘tolerant’ (in the Ellwoodian sense) exchange of information.” (I think Bailyn’s book, with his totally-in-denial description of changes in historiography as arising out of some “inner logic” of historical inquiry, is practically a poster-child example — though I do not recall whether Bailyn’s book would connect to discourse about “tolerance.”)

    As to the last part of your comment…

    Attacking historical thinking may not be the central thrust of Carl’s essay, but it’s certainly a target: “If enough people will just reject ‘political partisanship’ and adopt the open-minded, ‘tolerant’ mental habits of ‘historical thinking’—a variation on Ellwood’s ‘scientific attitude’—then the attacks will stop.” Historical thinking, he asserts, is just a variant of Ellwood’s pernicious thinking. Is his essay saying one thing and doing another — dismissing historical thinking as so much self-deceptive camouflage but trying to make that case (among others) via historical thinking itself? Maybe that’s why the essay struck me as unpersuasive.

    Hope that clarifies my comments.

  9. Yes thanks it does. I would just say I read that rather differently — I thought the quotes were there (in addition to indicating a quote!, of course) to indicate a certain amount of sarcasm, as if to say, somehow this vision has been baptized as historical thinking, a move which both automatically casts suspicion on other approaches to teaching & politics as ahistorical and itself is probably something in need of historical skepticism! I didn’t take it as he was actually taking a jab at thinking as a historian, but noting the work defining a certain mode of thinking as “historical” does for advancing certain ideologies.

    • I do think Robin Marie has captured the “gist” (another spectral word?) of what I was trying to say. You can have two historians with fundamentally different political perspectives (which ultimately are based on conflicting class, racial, gender, whatever sympathies, let’s say–that is, based on conflicting politics), both making use of primary sources, taking into account historical context, and even feeling empathy with their subjects. They’re both undeniably engaging in (sorry but I have to put this in quotes) “historical thinking” and yet they totally disagree. Once again, the allegedly neutral, “disciplinary” term begs the question, as Robin Marie puts it, empathy with whom?

      • Actually, it’s more like empathy for all, sympathy for some. As I think about my own work on creationism, it’s key to be able to place yourself in the shoes of the people you study, even if you vehemently disagree with them.

        If you want to see an example, check out my Church History article from last September on George McCready Price.

        The point still stands about “historical thinking” as a political evasion.

  10. I think the analysis of Ellwood’s speech in the post may mix up (or conflate, if you prefer that word) a couple of separable things. (Obvs. I haven’t read the whole text of his speech; am just going by the post.)

    (1) Ellwood’s belief in the value of the free exchange of ideas tied to “the process of social selection of favorable thought variations.” This may trace back to Mill, who used different language, but more immediately in the U.S. context to Holmes’s famous dissent in the case Abrams v. U.S. (1919):
    …when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
    This is still today a main basis for, e.g., the liberal case for public financing of campaigns and getting private money, to the extent possible, out of elections: a genuine ‘marketplace of ideas’ should, to the extent possible, be free of the distorting influences of money. (Of course a revolutionary Marxist would say that’s not possible in a capitalist society, but put that aside for the moment.)

    (2) Ellwood’s belief “that there are no fundamental conflicts structurally built into American society.” This doesn’t necessarily follow from (1). It’s possible to favor the free exchange of ideas, intercommunication, or what Holmes called (w a bit more of an edge) the competition of ideas in the marketplace and also think that there are fundamental conflicts of class and interest.
    In other words, one can hold the ‘liberal’ belief in the value of the free exchange of ideas and ‘undistorted’ communication without necessarily holding that there are no basic conflicts built into society. Indeed, one might argue that the more conflictual the society, the more it needs to encourage ‘intercommunication’, not to get rid of the conflicts — which on this view are ineradicable — but rather to ensure that they don’t lead to large-scale violence. Again, a revolutionary of course would not be happy with this. I’m just suggesting that a commitment to ‘toleration’ in the free-exchange-of-ideas sense doesn’t have to be allied to a harmony-of-interests political sociology, even if it was so allied in Ellwood’s case (and some others).

    • Well, for me the key point that Ellwood makes about “intercommunication” is not whether or not it is desirable but rather its power to resolve social conflict. For my part, I’m all for the free exchange of ideas. In fact, those of use who hold political views that are in the extreme minority tend to do so. So, I agree that belief in the value of such free exchange (or as free as it can be given the class/power relations of this society) does not necessarily conflict with a Marxist perspective. But Ellwood does seem to argue, at least in the case of the civil war, that slavery could have been ended without a revolutionary struggle. And by extension, he seems to be arguing that the threat of fascism, in the form of the KKK, and other kinds of rightist politics can be defeated by spreading information. Fast forwarding to the second reconstruction, I would say that civil rights were won by amassing the power of a mass movement and forcing change. It’s painful, “rude,” and “intolerant” but necessary.

    • I was about to write what Louis said: a belief in the value of “tolerance” does not necessarily entail a belief that tolerance is sufficient to solve all social problems. I’m glad that, despite Louis’s disagreements with Carl about Ellwood, Carl grants that “the value of such free exchange (or as free as it can be given the class/power relations of this society) does not necessarily conflict with a Marxist perspective.” Nor, presumably, would the value of free-exchange in a classless society conflict with a Marxist perspective. In short, I think Carl makes important arguments about the (rather limited) social power of tolerance and the dangers of overestimating that power, but that these do not add up to an argument against tolerance itself as a value.

  11. Just wanted to add yes, thanks Carl; I agree with your distinction on empathy/sympathy, and the way you formulated it. Realized myself afterwards that I should have used both terms rather than just the one.

  12. This one of the most fascinating threads I’ve read on S – USIH, coming near the interest of the Livingston series.

    It seems to me one theme is the division among the Left or relationship, (or is it conflict or outright fight?) between the liberal and the radical (Marxist/anarchist) traditions. Perhaps someday there should be a symposium or seminar on the issue since there is a lot to it, both historically and philosophically. The guest post seems to be suggesting that we should ask more from our fellow human beings that we outright love our fellow humans and not merely “put up with them” the latter seeming to imply alienation or separation, even condescension. It is ultimately a debate over the boundaries of the political and whether a certain consensus should be instituted. Yet it is precisely the liberal argument that this is simply asking too much, a kind of over legislation or interrogation of psychological and political attitudes.

    All in all a very interesting debate.

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